“All the work on leadership training, on communication training, on trust that we have worked so hard on in the last ten years was evident in this crisis.”

By Bob Oborn
President, Kent Elastomer Products

The Virus Hits the U.S.A.

Like a lot of other people, I first heard about the coronavirus in February, 2020. I was not really concerned about it.  My wife and I went to Arizona the last week of February to visit friends and the only difference we saw were a few more people wearing masks in the airport and on planes.

After returning home to Ohio, we planned to visit our son in Virginia the second week of March, but cancelled the flight as my wife really started worrying about the rapid increase of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases spreading across the United States.  

The week of March 16 brought Ohio school closures and talk about shutting down businesses the following week. 

Are We Closing Down?

As it became more certain that we would close down, our parent company (Meridian Industries) held a conference call with the presidents of all subsidiaries about which companies would be labeled essential, or needed for the country to keep running, or non-essential – meaning they would shut down. 

Over the next week, KEP was deemed an essential business by the state government as a supplier to makers of medical equipment.

Communicating with Every Employee

That week, I addressed every employee on each shift in our three facilities to communicate clearly that: We would be staying open, but we would be safe and responsible – wearing masks, maintaining six feet distance and washing our hands all the time.

I added, if an employee felt sick, to call off, and if an employee has a fever, to call off.   KEP has an attendance points system which I suspended so that nobody would be penalized for calling off if the employee got sick or had a fever.

We created an employee email master list so I could stay personally connected to everybody. I shared up-to-the-minute  information and thanked my employees for all their hard work, patience and dedication.

Updating Our Pandemic Procedure

We had a rudimentary pandemic procedure that required a quick update. A fellow subsidiary of Meridian Industries shared their previously developed plan created for the previous H1N1 pandemic. Within a week, we updated and converted it to work for KEP – and it is firmly in place for future use if needed.

Meeting Requirements – Even Creating Our Own Supplies

We scrambled for supplies – and even created our own – to meet Ohio’s requirement for health and safety for all employees, including:

  • Adapting our daily procedure to include checking employee temperatures before the start of their work shift
  • Purchasing reusable masks at no cost to share with our employees 
  • Providing free hand sanitizer for  the workplace as well as for all employees to take home

Here’s a great story about why it’s good to work in an industry with scientists: One early hurdle was that no hand sanitizer solution was readily available. KEP’s technical director Michael Stecyk researched and compounded enough hand sanitizer to satisfy all of the KEP facilities. Plastic containers were purchased from numerous sources and hand sanitizer dispensers were distributed throughout our facilities. In addition, all KEP employees were encouraged to bring in their own containers to be filled for home use. The goal was to keep our employees and their families safe.

Fear of Shutdown

To be honest, I was afraid we would not be able to stay open.  I actually had my team put together a business shutdown plan for the Kent facility due to all the latex we use and all the full tanks.  Any long term shutdown would have been a disaster and very costly.

There was good reason for us to be worried, as KEP produces a lot for the food and beverage industry. If people are not going to restaurants, sporting events, traveling or heading to amusement parks like Disney, our customers would not need our product.

“The way we work together made the difference. We had never faced any adversity as bad as this.”

When Business Slows Down, KEP Seeks New Opportunities

We began calling all our major customers to find out what they were going to do.  We found out that many would be shutting down, some would be moving orders out, and some would be business as usual. We let them all know we would adjust our due dates and not to worry, we would be there, with product, when they needed it.

KEP is fortunate that we have two existing products that are used in ventilators. We were able to meet the increased demands for new orders right away.

In addition, two other suppliers in the medical supply chain contacted us to fulfill extraordinarily urgent orders. This helped to negate our losses with food and beverage industry slowdown – and created rewarding relationships with our new customers.

KEP Retools

KEP was contacted by an automotive company that was retooling to make face masks. They were looking for a non-latex band to secure the masks to the head. 

So we repurposed our FreeBand® non-latex surgical tourniquet band – retooling to change its width and color. In less than two weeks we had bands to their specification and in a month had produced more than 750,000 units.

Stress and Success

For March and April, we have had two months marked by stress and success. We met the challenges that the pandemic shutdowns required. Not one employee was furloughed.

We also met the challenges to adapt and serve the immediate needs of customers rushing to fill emergency orders. I believe that our diverse product portfolio and our team, who never turns down a challenge, is the main difference. 

The way we work together made the difference.  We had never faced any adversity as bad as this.  

All the work on leadership training, on communication training and on trust that we have worked so hard on in the last ten years was evident in this crisis.  

Team building takes time. But without it, I don’t believe we would have fared as well.

I am proud of how everyone in our organization did their part.

Bob Oborn joined KEP in 1981.

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